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Posts Tagged ‘class arbitration waiver’

The Supreme Court issued its decision today in the first of two arbitration-related class action cases on the 2012-13 docket.  Today’s decision bucks what had been a trend in the Court’s decisions in recent years strongly favoring individual arbitration and limiting the situations in which class arbitration (private arbitration in which the plaintiffs proceed in a representative capacity on behalf of a class) can occur.

In a unanimous ruling, the Court in Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter upheld an arbitrator’s decision to interpret an arbitration agreement as allowing for class arbitration, despite express reference to class arbitration in the parties’ written agreement.  Writing for the Court, Justice Kagan reasoned that applicable standard of review prevents the courts from second-guessing whether the arbitrator’s interpretation of the party’s contract was the correct one and only permits review of whether the decision was based on an interpretation of the parties’ agreement.  Because the arbitrator’s decision was clearly based on an analysis of contractual intent, the arbitrator’s decision could not be overturned.  The fact that the arbitrator had interpreted the parties’ agreement as providing for class arbitration and the deferential standard applicable to the arbitrator’s decision distinguished Oxford Health Plans from Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp., in which the Court had held that class arbitration cannot be compelled absent express agreement by the parties.

Important to the Court’s decision was the fact that the defendant had conceded that the arbitrator should decide the question of whether the parties had agreed to class arbitration.  It was this concession that let Justice Alito to agree with the Court’s decision.  However, in a concurring opinion joined by Justice Thomas, Justice Alito expressed doubt that any ruling in the class arbitration proceeding would have any preclusive effect as to absent class members, an observation that raises a serious question about whether the Oxford Health decision will be of any practical impact in other cases.  He noted:

Class arbitrations that are vulnerable to collateral attack allow absent class members to unfairly claim the “benefit from a favorable judgment without subjecting themselves to the binding effect of an unfavorable one,” American Pipe & Constr. Co. v. Utah, 414 U. S. 538, 546– 547 (1974).  In the absence of concessions like Oxford’s, this possibility should give courts pause before concluding that the availability of class arbitration is a question the arbitrator should decide.

Defendants will likely see the concurrence as a roadmap for asking the question to be addressed by a court in the first instance, as opposed to simply conceding that the arbitrator should decide the issue whether class arbitration is allowed. 

There are two clear takeaways from the Oxford Health decision: 1) in drafting an arbitration provision, make sure to address the issue of whether arbitration on a class-wide basis will be allowed.  Under Stolt-Nielsen, agreements that bar class arbitration will be enforced; 2) think carefully before conceding that an arbitrator, rather than a court, should make decisions about how an arbitration agreement should be interpreted.

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In what would have been bigger class action news yesterday had the Supreme Court not issued its decision in Amgen, the Court also heard oral argument in class arbitration case, American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, No. 12-133 (click case title for a link to the transcript).  The primary issue presented is whether the “federal substantive law of arbitrability” may be invoked to invalidate an arbitration agreement in a case involving federal law claims.  The case will test the limits of the Supreme Court’s holding in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S. Ct. 1740 (2011) (holding that the Federal Arbitration Act preempts state laws prohibiting class arbitration waivers). 

It is clear from the questions posed by the Justices that there are certain members of the Court (namely Justice Scalia, author of Concepcion) who remain steadfast in their belief that arbitration agreements that prohibit class claims are enforceable, period, and that there is another faction of the court that has serious doubts about the use of an arbitration agreement to effectively foreclose a litigant from obtaining any meaningful procedure for vindicating his or her rights.  Whether this case follows Concepcion in solidifying the enforceability of class arbitration waivers or carves out an exception will likely depend on a few swing votes in the middle.

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I’m pleased to announce that the BakerHostetler Class Action Defense Team has just released its 2012 Year-end Review of Class Actions, a joint project with the firm’s Employment Class Actions, Antitrust, and Data Privacy practice teams.  See below for a synopsis of the project.  Click the link above to access a copy of the report itself:

We are pleased to share with you the BakerHostetler 2012 Year-end Review of Class Actions, which offers a summary of some of the key developments in class action litigation during the past year. Class action litigation continues to persist in all areas of civil litigation despite the Supreme Court’s 2011 decisions in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion and in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, which were seen by many commentators as marking the beginning of the end of class actions as we know them. But while the Supreme Court’s 2011 decisions have had a significant impact on class action litigation, they have not brought about its demise and are not likely to do so anytime soon. In the last two years, we’ve seen landmark decisions and the addition of important judicial gloss to those decisions. 2013 will be no different as the Supreme Court is set to weigh in on a series of key cases this spring.

We hope you find this Review a useful tool as you move forward into the new year. This comprehensive analysis of last year’s developments in class action procedure and jurisdiction, as well as developments by subject matter will hopefully provide context and insight as you look ahead to 2013′s expected trends in class action law, including the proliferation of privacy class action litigation and class action litigation relating to the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal.

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My colleagues at BakerHostetler have put together some great content on several class action-related topics recently that readers should find interesting.

First, the Baker Hostetler Class Action Defense Team issued an executive alert today discussing the Supreme Court’s decision to grant certiorari in another case involving class arbitration waivers.  The alert, titled U.S. Supreme Court Considers Arbitration Clauses and Class Actions Next Year, summarizes the issues to be addressed in Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter.  The alert was authored by newly elected Cleveland Partner Ruth E. Hartman and Class Action Defense Team Leader Ernie Vargo.

Another executive alert, titled Recent Trends in Class Actions for Telephone and Fax Solicitation and Advertising, was issued last week by the Privacy and Data Protection and Class Action Defense Teams.   The alert, authored by my colleague in Denver, Justin Winquist, summarizes the latest trends in class action litigation under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).

Finally, my partner Casie Collignon authored a blog post yesterday with an update on the latest in the ongoing saga of Dukes v. Wal-Mart on remand following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.  The post is entitled, California District Court Awaits Class Certification Motion in Wal-Mart.

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Work commitments have prevented me from commenting in detail on some key developments in class actions over the past week or so, but please be sure to check out my Twitter feed for some links.  The key developments include: 1) the Supreme Court granting certiorari in Amex III to decide whether federal law can apply to hold a class arbitration waiver unconscionable; and 2) Judge Posner’s decision favorable to class certification of warranty claims in case involving allegedly moldy washing machines.

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I’m a few weeks behind in reporting this, but I still thought it was worth noting that the Florida Supreme Court held oral argument last month in a case that could test the the reach of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 decision on class arbitration waivers in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion.  In McKenzie Check Advance of Florida LLC v. Wendy Betts, SC11-514, the plaintiff relied on factual evidence in an attempt to prove that the lack of a class action device has made it impossible for her to obtain legal representation to pursue her claims in arbitration.  The case thus potentially raises the question of whether a case-specific finding of unconscionablility, as opposed to a statewide policy invalidating class arbitration waivers more generally, is permissible despite the Court’s holding in Concepcion (I say potentially because it appears that there are factual questions about whether the evidence really supports the proposition that there would be no lawyer willing to take the plaintiff’s case in an individual arbitration).  Recall that the arbitration provision at issue in Concepcion contained several consumer-friendly features, which could have supported the conclusion that it did not actually deprive a consumer of any opportunity to vindicate his or her rights, although Justice Scalia’s majority opinion did not turn on the existence of these features.

This AP article by Bill Kaczor has a good summary of the arguments on both sides and some of the key questions posed during oral argument.  A link to the video feed of the oral argument can be found here (although the server was not responding when I tried to play it).

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In a recent post entitled Concepcion a Year Later, Are Consumer Class Actions Dead Yet?, I invited readers to offer their perspectives on trends in the enforceability of class arbitration waivers now that a year after the Concepcion decision.  In response, Jessie Kokrda Kamens at the Bloomberg BNA Class Action Litigation Report send me a copy of her recent article, Post-Concepcion, Plaintiffs Chalk Up Few Victories, Look to Government for Relief.  Kamens offers the perspectives of several leading class action practitioners on how the law on class arbitration waivers has developed in the lower courts since Concepcion, as well as their predictions on how the law will develop into the future.  Among the observations made in the article:

  • Although class arbitration waivers were upheld in 76 cases, plaintiffs were successful in invalidating arbitration clauses in several key cases, mostly on various federal law grounds.
  • Use of “consumer-friendly” provisions, such as the one at issue in Concepcion that provided for monetary incentives for individuals to pursue arbitration, makes it much more likely that an arbitration clause will be upheld.
  • Observers are eagerly awaiting several federal and state regulatory and legislative developments that may impact the enforceability of class arbitration waivers, including the results of a study being conducted by the federal Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (CFPB) pursuant to Dodd-Frank about the impact of arbitration clauses on consumer financial products, several bills being considered by Congress, and a bill being considered in the California legislature that would render void contracts that contain class action waivers.

Thanks to Bloomberg BNA (www.bna.com) for granting permission to post a copy of the article on this site.  For those of you who are not subscribers, I highly recommend the Bloomberg BNA Class Action Litigation Report.  It is one of the most comprehensive and reliable sources of class action cases and trends available.

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On May 1, we received the following comment in response to a post from last May entitled Will AT&T v. Concepcion Really Kill the Consumer Class Action?

Melissa 

It has been almost a year. Could someone tell me, in their opinion, what effect Concepcion has had on consumer class actions over the last 11 months?

According to a recent New York Times article by David Segal titled A Rising Tide Against Class Action Suits, the effect has been significant.  The article cites a report from the consummer advocacy group, Public Citizen, which found 76 opinions relying on Concepcion as a reason to prevent class actions from “moving ahead.”

I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the number of opinions cited in the Public Citizen report, and there is no doubt that Concepcion has had an impact on class action litigation, both in consumer class actions and in other subject matter areas.  However, I would caution that simply looking at the number of class actions that have been unsuccessful due to class arbitration waivers does not tell the whole story.   Here are a few observations to consider in assessing the impact of Concepcion:

  • Concepcion has not been treated by the lower courts as foreclosing all arguments for declaring an arbitration clause invalid.  A case in point is the Second Circuit’s recent decision in In re Amex III., which relied on the federal common law of arbitrability in declaring a class arbitration waiver invalid.
  • Class action litigation has been on the decline in substantive areas that are not impacted by arbitration clauses, such as in securties class actions.
  • There are many areas of consumer class action litigation that remain unaffected by arbitration clauses because they either involve claims where there may be no contractual relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant, including statutory penalty class actions such as TCPA class actions class actions and certain data privacy class actions, or they involve areas of the law where arbitration clauses are prohibited, including many insurance class actions.  A careful review of the data may show that consumer class action litigation has simply shifted to these areas.
  • Recognizing that arbitration clauses do not necessarily provide a magic talisman against class action litigation and that implementing an overly consumer-friendly arbitration clause may actually encourage litigation, not all companies have rushed to adopt arbitration clauses into their consumer contracts.

In summary, I would say that while Concepcion‘s ban on state laws invalidating arbitration clauses has become an important consideration in litigating consumer class actions, it has not brought about their end.

I’d love to hear what readers have to say about their own perspectives on this issue.  Please feel to comment below.

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Two readers sent me tips yesterday on important decisions from the Second and Third Circuit Courts of Appeals that will be of interest to class action practitioners:

First, John G. Papianou of the Philadelphia firm Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, LLP forwarded a copy of the Third Circuit’s decision in Long v. Tommy Hilfiger U.S.A., Inc., No. 11-1554 (3d Cir., Jan. 24, 2012).  The Third Circuit affirmed a lower court’s decision (summarized in this February 14, 2011 CAB Post) holding that 1) the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) prohibits a merchant from printing a consumer’s expiration month (as opposed to the entire expiration date) on a credit card receipt but that 2) the standard for a willful violation of FAСTA is one of objective reasonableness, meaning that if a merchant acted in conformance with a reasonable, albeit erroneous, interpretation of the statute, it cannot be held liable for a willful violation, regardless of its subjective knowledge or intent.

Second, New York securities class action lawyer Noah L. Shube forwarded a copy of the Second Circuit’s highly anticipated decision in In Re American Express Merchants’ Litigation, No. 06-1871 (2d Cir., Feb. 1, 2012).  In that case, the Second Circuit reaffirmed its conclusion invalidating a class arbitration waiver on federal statutory grounds.  The case had been vacated and remanded by the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider in light of its recent decision in  AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion.  Yesterday’s decision follows a previous ruling finding the clause unenforceable, which had previously been vacated, remanded for reconsideration in light of the Court’s decision in Stolt-Nielsen, S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S. Ct. 1758 (2010), only to be reaffirmed by the Second Circuit in a March 8, 2011 ruling (discussed in this March 9, 2011 CAB entry).  In yesterday’s decision, the Second Circuit relied on the federal law of arbitrability, a concept not squarely addressed in either of the Supreme Court’s recent class arbitration decisions, in holding the class arbitration waiver unenforceable.

The Baker Hostetler class action team is putting together a more detailed alert discussing yesterday’s decision in In re American Express Merchants’ Litigation, and I’ll post a link to that alert as soon as it is available.

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It has only been a few months since the Supreme Court issued its decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, holding that state laws holding class arbitration waivers unenforceable as against public policy are preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), and the Court is already considering a new case involving the enforceability of arbitration agreements in consumer contracts.  

Today, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Compucredit Corp. v. Greenwood, No. 10-948, in which the issue is whether a federal law’s grant to consumers of a right to sue can be waived through an arbitration agreement.  A copy of the oral argument transcript is now available at the Court’s website.  Most of the questions were directed at issues of statutory construction under the Credit Repair Organizations Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1679 et seq., and in particular whether Congress intended that the right to sue in court be non-waivable.  The Ninth Circuit’s decision below, the limited scope of the question presented for review, and the questions posed at oral argument would all suggest that the Court is unlikely in its ultimate opinion to address some of deeper questions remaining after Conception, such as whether and under what circumstances a consumer arbitration agreement can be held unconscionable under federal law.  Then again, as aptly illustrated in Justice Scalia’s opinion in Concepcion decision, the possibility that the decision will go beyond the limited statutory questions presented and address deeper public policy issues can never be ruled out.

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